Mars Hill Church: True religion does not abandon orphans and widows in their distress.

Marc Fulmer with childAgathos Internationaln Logo

This post has taken a long time to write. There are many reasons for it and I trust that each reader will understand as they read it.

In February of 2007, Mark Driscoll preached a sermon about Boaz, who he referred to as the “Dude of dudes.” Toward the end of the sermon, called “Redeeming Ruth – God’s hand in our luck,” at 58 minutes into the sermon, he says the following:

58:48 to 1:04:50.. and I will tell you in conclusion of a Boaz kind of guy who’s doing a Boaz kind of work…and I will give him some, some backup today. His name is Rob Smith. Working with him is a man named Marc Fulmer [pictured above]…they are both members of this church. Rob was a guy who grew up between Africa and the United States of America – he’s been a member of this church for a long time with his family – many of you know him – he’s a great guy – I love him – he’s a dear friend – and he saw the AIDS epidemic in South Africa, in Africa…knowing that about 20% of people are HIV positive and that there are eleven million orphans…and many widows in Africa. And so he devised a plan sort of taking the gleaning principle of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and Ruth saying “we need to have a farm that produces a harvest that is an ongoing source of food and life…and on that farm we need two things…we need an orphanage and a church. The church to be the church and love people and raise them and to teach them sexual chastity and raise kids to love Jesus so that this epidemic stops…and also an orphanage so that these kids are loved and have a roof over their head and food in their stomach…and a mother and father figure in their life – that being the pastor as well as these widows. We move in widows and orphans…and we care for widows and orphans because that’s the heart of God…and we do that as the church on a self-sustaining farm sort of taking many of the principles from a book like Ruth. So he started this organization – go to Agathos Foundation.org – or grab paperwork on the way out – and he’s got this concept called “One Church One Village” where a church in the US partners with a church in the village to get a farm…to plant a church…and to open an orphanage…and money goes from us who have the wherewithal, like Boaz, to help…out in the field.

So Mars Hill…we’ve done this in the past…you probably don’t know this…some years ago you all purchased a large piece of land in India that now has on orphanage with 100 kids on it and you purchased the land. So this is kinda what we do… So in Africa we partnered and we have an orphanage there that now has – I think it is – 32 kids and 140 people in Mars Hill give monthly to help support them. What am I saying? Do your part with the people in your life, give to your church, beyond that have a global heart for widows, orphans, the poor and those in need…

I am going to ask you to support some widows and orphans in Africa, We have an orphanage, we have a village…members of Mars Hill have actually moved there to take care of widows and orphans.

My involvement in the last year of standing up and speaking out against the well-documented abuses at Mars Hill Church was never about revenge or getting even. It was not about me or Agathos Foundation, which was the orphan care ministry Mark Driscoll referenced in the above 2007 sermon, which I founded in 2002 and which also was the year Merle and I became members of Mars Hill Church.

For six years after leaving Mars Hill Church I had no public voice. My open engagement in the story began in December of 2013 when I began to hear of the repeated abuse of others at Mars Hill Church. This includes standing up for many men who still will have nothing to do with me. This is partially because of slanderous attacks leveled against me and Agathos after I appealed to the elders to conduct a fair trial for Paul Petry in 2007.

As some are aware, the result of me pleading for a fair trial and arguing for due deliberation when changing bylaws was that Mark Driscoll, in an abusive and vile manner, threatened to destroy me and my ministry. He threatened to make sure that I could never be in ministry again.

In December 2007, Merle and I quietly left Mars Hill Church.

This was not due to the kindness of the elders (who told us we could not leave because we were under “church discipline”). It was because of a backfire in strategy by then executive pastors Jamie Munson and Scott Thomas, who handled my “discipline case.” They did not want us to leave. In attempting to keep us from leaving they recruited the largest donor to Agathos (who was also a large donor to Mars Hill Church) to encourage us to stay. When that donor eventually supported our decision to leave peaceably, Jamie Munson was in a pickle. He could continue the stance that we could not leave because we were under discipline and offend the large donor, or he could let us leave in peace and not offend the donor. So we were “allowed” to leave in good standing. The full story of the endless meetings that got us to that point is a post for another day.

You will want to hear that story.

But despite leaving peaceably – we had crossed a line. To use Mark Driscoll’s oft spoken words, we had “pissed him off.” For merely appealing to Mark Driscoll and a small handful of the lead elders, including the recently repentant Pastor James Harleman (one of my dearest friends at the time), the attacks on my character began. And the attacks on Agathos began.

A little background about Agathos.

In 2002, Agathos began as a ministry to rescue orphans in Africa during the peak of the “out-of-control” HIV/AIDS crisis. Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church were highly supportive of the ministry and gave Agathos favored exposure within the church and throughout Acts 29.

Over time, as we worked we grew from a young start-up ministry learning from our experiences and our mistakes. In early 2007, Agathos proposed a “One Church One Village” model of linking an American Church with an African Church in the rescue and care of orphans. The commitment of the US church was to raise $625,000 over six years for the orphan village it had “adopted”, and the commitment of the African church was to be the hands and feet on the ground caring for orphans in distress.

The first two American churches that committed to this was Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and The Vine Church in Redmond, Washington.  Mars Hill Church committed itself to Kwethu Village in South Africa, along with its 32 children and their caretakers, some of whom were young widows who themselves were impacted by the HIV/AIDS crisis. The Vine Church, led by Pastor Jesse Winkler, committed themselves to a new orphan village to be constructed just south of Ndola, Zambia.

Within weeks of the agreement, Mars Hill Church took over The Vine, and Jesse Winkler became the lead pastor for Mars Hill Bellevue. We were all excited as Mars Hill Ballard took over the relationship with the South African village under Kabyn Vikesland and Mars Hill Bellevue took over the relationship with the new proposed Zambian village. The future for Agathos looked bright, as discussion with executive elder Scott Thomas included plans to have each campus support an orphan village, and each Acts 29 church encouraged to do the same.

The vision for 1,000 orphan villages to be supported seemed possible. It was so encouraging. Agathos was now five years old and many Mars Hill members had been to Africa to visit the children rescued, and many more threw their support behind Agathos. This was usually by committing to $25 per month.

This all happened in August 2007 – one month before the infamous trial of Paul Petry.

When Paul Petry and Bent Meyer were fired, I heard that they were going to be put on trial. Many were asking questions, and it became clear that they were not going to receive a fair and impartial trial. The charges against them were unclear and seemed trivial. They were not going to be allowed to attend their own trials so that they could defend themselves. Their accusers were also members of the jury that would convict them. No witnesses were allowed.

It was clear that the trials would occur in such a way as to have long term bad consequences for the church. So I wrote a private email to the elders pleading for a fair trial. It was not written to defend Paul Petry or Bent Meyer. It was written to protect Mars Hill Church from the long term consequences of an unfair trial. I wrote that an “unfair trial would leave a shadow that would not easily go away”.

I was told that I had sinfully “inserted” myself, and that what I had written was written in “pride” and therefore disregarded. I was told that I should have gone to only one elder, (James Harleman), and that by going to all the elders I was actually trying to cause division among the elders. I was therefore placed under church discipline for being “divisive.”

The elders that dealt with my “case” were James Harleman, Dave Kraft, and Tim Reber. All have since repented of their role in the treatment of Paul Petry. None have addressed their role in my discipline, or their passivity in what followed regarding Agathos.

The last meeting that I had at Mars Hill Church was after both the trial and the changing of the bylaws. At the meeting was Jamie Munson, Scott Thomas, James Harleman, a man who for now will remain unnamed who was a major donor to both Agathos and Mars Hill Church, and the unflappable Will Hofman who supported me as a witness to the discipline process I was placed under by church leaders.

After Jamie Munson and Scott Thomas agreed with the donor that Merle and I should be free to leave the church peaceably, I raised the question about the continued support of Agathos. After all, the “One Church One Village” effort was led by members of the respective Mars Hill campuses. I had little to do with it. The support was widespread throughout Mars Hill Church.

When I asked the question there was a stunned silence for a minute. Jamie Munson then looked at the donor and asked “What do we do about Agathos?”

“We continue to support Agathos!” came the reply.

Scott Thomas, who at the time was the head of Acts 29 and very active in both the trial of Paul Petry and the changing of the bylaws, looked directly at me and said emphatically, “We will never abandon our orphans!” As he said that he brought his hands together and interlocked his fingers.

Intertwined hands 1

It was heartwarming.

Little did these men know that Mark Driscoll had threatened to destroy Agathos, along with threatening to destroy me and any future ministry endeavor.

So the infamous ad hominem attacks began. They had begun earlier at the trial of Paul Petry. It was me who Paul Petry sought out to discuss the “church discipline” wording in the proposed bylaws. This was one of the charges brought against Paul Petry. He allegedly had “violated elder protocol” by allowing a lowly member to see the proposed bylaws. Imagine that! The wording Paul Petry proposed on the rights of a member under discipline was actually written by me.

I had been approved to be an elder of Mars Hill Church. I was the pastor in charge of community groups for the new Mars Hill Wedgwood Campus. I had faithfully served Agathos and Mars Hill Church as a member for the previous five years. Yet it was a crime against the church for Paul Petry to consult with me regarding the new bylaws.

So at the trial of Paul Petry the attacks began. “You have no idea who Rob Smith is…”, stated Mark Driscoll at Paul Petry’s trial, “You do not know him like I know him..”, he continued. “He is the biggest troublemaker in Mars Hill’s history!” And so the attacks began.

And so did the attacks on Agathos. I hear them still today.

Little matter that I had just been approved to be an elder. Little matter that James Harleman had offered me a paid position as an elder at Wedgwood starting in 2008 if I would accept the position. Little matter that hundreds of members were supporting our orphans in Africa, and many could witness the ministry first hand.

None of that mattered.

Not a single elder stood up to ask how I could have been vetted for eldership one week, and be “the biggest troublemaker in Mars Hill’s history” the next. How was it that in February I was a man like Boaz, dude of dudes, and now ten months Iater I was pariah? No elder cared to ask.

Within a few months most of the members of Mars Hill Church withdrew their support of orphans under our care. The emails we received were similarly written. “We have been led by God to support another ministry.” Almost all of them pointed to God’s “leading.” It certainly looked like they had been coached on what to say.

At that time, although I led Agathos, I was not taking a salary from Agathos. We hunkered down and prepared ourselves for the impact of Mark Driscoll’s threat. It came swiftly and with great effect.

In February 2008, less than two months after his promise not to abandon “our” orphans, we received a letter from Scott Thomas. Mars Hill Church was ending its relationship to Agathos. What I did not know, was that Jamie Munson and Scott Thomas had called Marc Fulmer, who leads Agathos to this day, and threatened to pull support unless I resigned from Agathos and Mars Hill Church took it over and re-branded the ministry as a Mars Hill ministry. They proposed to keep Marc – but I had to go. Marc turned the “offer” down and we received the letter from Scott Thomas shortly thereafter.

Letter from Scott Thomas 1

So Agathos lost about 85% of its support.

I recently ran into Scott Thomas and asked him about his promise to never abandon “our orphans.” He was no longer at Mars Hill Church and was himself suffering a level of abuse from the Mars Hill Church leadership. He appealed that he had no say in the matter. He said that his hands were tied.

I recently had coffee with a staunch Mark Driscoll supporter who has chided any criticism of Mark Driscoll and strongly challenged me for every apparent infraction of the last year, yet at the same time vigorously excused or defended every one of Driscoll’s “mistakes.” The supporter said some awful things about me and Agathos, particularly its “misuse” of funds. I asked where he got such information. He had no idea. He had simply accepted the rumors. Rumors that circulated after the trial of Paul Petry. I also have recently spoken to another ministry leader involved in orphan care in Africa. She was warned not to work with Agathos. She came to me in sorrow that she walked away from a relationship with Agathos after that Mars Hill warning.

Ad hominem attacks.

I am sure that there may never be a full recovery when one’s name has been intentionally slandered. That is why God takes such seriously. It is similar to theft. The stealing of a man’s good name has severe consequences, some of which are almost impossible to overcome. That is why it is an awful sin against someone.

Agathos has survived and our children have done well. But it was not easy.

For several years we put ourselves under a good ministry called Pilgrim Africa. This action removed our orphans from the slander we were enduring and we encouraged our remaining supporters to support Pilgrim. In 2009, Agathos then closed its doors and Kwethu Village continued under Pilgrim.

In 2014, Agathos was reborn as Agathos International.

There were two reasons for this. First was that while Pilgrim willingly supported our orphan village in South Africa from 2009 to 2014, their ministry is focused in Uganda, so Kwethu Village was somewhat outside their scope. The second reason was a strong sense that Agathos had always had a broader ministry to the broken and poor in the communities we served. and we felt the need to reemerge and serve that purpose.

So after seven years since leaving Mars Hill Church, Agathos is once again supporting Kwethu Village. Some of the orphans that were rescued by Agathos through the early support of Mars Hill members are now entering university. The stories are amazing! New orphans are being accepted as the village grows.

Because of the intent behind the early vision of Agathos, the monthly support costs are strikingly low. Most support comes from local activity in the village. It is wonderful. Local support and local economic activity pays for most of the costs of the care of the the village.

I encourage readers to consider supporting Kwethu Village with a monthly contribution. We are looking to raise a total of $3,000 per month for the village. As you see the precious lives of children in distress being impacted and stabilized, you will agree that this is a great value for so little per month.

Please consider becoming a monthly supporter of our orphans. The fruit of your support will be eternal.

Agathos International is also committed to creating economic life for the broken in the areas that God has placed us. So we are working to address poverty both in the countries in Africa where we have impacted orphans and the poor, as well as in the U.S. where we are beginning to call successful businessmen and businesswomen to engage the issue of poverty through our “Freedom, Wealth, and Poverty” events that we host in the greater Seattle area.

Agathos is run on a voluntary basis with no salaries being paid on the U.S. side. This allows over 95% of what we receive to go into program. Please feel free to contact me for more information.

Agathos Internationaln Logo

Rob Smith